Joanna’s Morning Links post today included a link to a Mike Shatzkin article about the future of Barnes & Noble.
I found this statement particularly telling:
“It is a virtual certainty that if a book has three different prices: print in the store, print online, and ebook, the printed book in the store will cost the most. This is not a formula to assure bookstore survival.”
If Amazon.com has taught us nothing else, it has taught us that books should be inexpensive. I know that authors and publishers wish Amazon had not taught us the lesson, but it’s been well and truly taught. Publishers, authors and booksellers are going to have to deal with it for years to come.
So, book lovers, what’s the answer? We are readers. We know what we like and what we want, and, from comments on this blog and others, I don’t think we want brick-and-mortar stores to go out of business. Is there a solution? Maybe no one will listen to us. But maybe they will.
Bookstores will survive if they provide something people want enough to pay for it. People who love bookstores as places– places to browse, read, meet friends– cannot keep bookstores alive in very small towns but if there are enough of them in larger cities they might. I think indie bookstores actually have a better shot than the big chain stores. The chains are outgunned by online stores, especially once digital is in the picture. And indies can change course in reaction to new circumstances faster than big chains. Of course “can” doesn’t necessarily mean “will.”
Maybe this is from a time out of place, but in the late 80s and early 90s the bookstore market in the Washington DC metro area was dominated by Crown Books, a discount retail chain. “If you paid full price, you didn’t buy it at Crown Books” was their motto. They sold NYT bestsellers at 35% off and other books at 10 to 20% discount. But then Borders came to town and put them out of business.
So how did a (mostly) full price store put the discount store out of business? Borders was the better bookstore despite higher prices. A modern bookstore must be able to offer something more than Amazon — and doesn’t have to be price. Or have times so changed that price really is the main thing.
Bookstores do not need help from readers who value item price first. Bookstores need advocates who value their whole services. Imagine you will visit but purchase nothing. At Amazon you will enjoy the personal suggestions and the book previews. In a bookstore you have the same pastimes although live rather than automated. In both visits you have fulfillment of time set apart for smart, stimulating entertainment that will also enrich relations with others. And who will not value a commercial operation with a harmless, efficient, elegant product where the customer is left in passive tranquility.
Use technology and services to increase the value of bookstores. Print-on-demand printers in bookstores. Ebook kiosks. Always-on wifi. Discounts on any ebook bought in-store. Book cafes. Readings and teach-ins. Book discovery events. Creches and play/reading areas for kids. There are loads of ways – it’s just that the WalMart approach of some bookstore chains has worked against them. And a single PoD machine has got to cost less than a whole storeful of unsold inventory.
Ebooks definitely make a difference in pricing. I’m doing a series of Tolkien-related titles and the pricing mechanics are interesting. Selling an ebook for $4.99 earns me about as much as the trade paperback at $14.95. And topics that’d never make sense as a $12.95 paperback, do make sense as at just 99 cents.
I suspect in a couple of years I’ll be doing a a paperback version of many titles more for legitimacy than income. There are a lot of trashy ebooks out there. The discipline of creating an attractive print version with a great cover and the money/time investment required is a good way to signal to readers that a book is well-done.
We need to be practical too. There’s simply no way that a brick-and-mortar bookstore can market ebooks. It’s too easy to get them directly from your home or the coffee shop on the corner. But something like a bookstore can remain alive if they emulate two success stories, Starbucks and Apple stores, and create a total environment that’s worth visiting for other reasons.
One final note. I’ve been told by people who know that bookstores were actually rare in the U.S. before the 1960s outside large cities. Most people read books they got through belonging to book clubs. If we’re interested in preserving reading and a world where authors don’t live in dumpsters, something similar might make more sense but with ebooks.
For instance, there’d be ebook clubs for various sorts of books: mysteries, thrillers, romance, fantasy, and the like. There’d be different levels, depending on how much reading you liked to do. You could even store up titles for summer vacation. New authors would get to promote their titles as outside-the-limit downloads. Subscribers could even try a title for a day and return it at no penalty. They might also be able to pick an occasional title outside their genre. Authors would be paid based on downloads.
I think the suggestions around community building at a bookstore are spot on. We tend to “flock.” and we’ll do it in-person if given half a chance. I’ve always loved the print on demand kiosk idea, but I’ve heard they are currently too expensive to be a practical solution.
Michael, I’d be interested to hear more about your Tolkien titles. My college senior thesis for my Honors in English was on Tolkien. My mom once told me that if I’d spent half the time learning “real” history as I spent on Middle Earth, I’d be more successful. Not sure what I would have been more successful at, but at the time, I didn’t care. Elves and hobbits were way more interesting than the American Revolution.
The most successful book stores that I have seen in smaller communities are those who understood the need to diversify and add a sense of uniqueness. What they all had in common was an appeal to the senses. A good bookstore is not too commercial or antiseptic in appearance. It should offer more than books and magazines. Some do it with a great cafe, others by hosting local musicians and artists on a regular basis, or by offering those harder to find items like good writing paper and pens. All have some comfortable chairs and a small meeting space.
When travelling I judge the health of a community by the privately owned bookstores especially in the heart of downtown. For many this may be only a subliminal indicator but it is a factor that a Chamber of Commerce should consider.